Friday, January 23, 2015

War and Peace (The First Half)

I started rereading Tolstoy's War and Peace last fall because I'm working with a student on an independent study of the novel.  I first read the novel in college (nearly 30 years ago), for a class that I was taking, and I couldn't help but wonder 1) how much of it I would actually remember, and 2) whether I would like it as much as I did back then--because, truth be told, I really did like the novel.

The thing with War and Peace, obviously, is the length.  Even 30 years ago, before e-everything and Twitter and whatnot, people were generally not inclined to read a novel that is--depending on the print size of the copy you're using--about 1500+ pages long.

I have no idea what that would be in terms of file size.  I suspect that reading it on an app that doesn't give real page numbers would be... disheartening, to say the least.

Although I had a snobbish acquaintance in college who claimed that "not a single WORD of War and Peace is wasted" (and I'm not sure how he knew this, because he didn't read it in Russian after all--he conveniently forgot that he was reading it in translation), I doubt anyone else out there would make such a claim.

Henry James coined the phrase "loose baggy monsters" to refer to the genre of the nineteenth-century novel, and he specifically references War and Peace in terms of this description.  (However, if you click on the link and begin to [try to] read James' own prose, you'll see that he really had no cause to be hurling terms like "loose" and "baggy" and "monster" at anyone else's writing style.  Ye gods, man.)

So I picked up War and Peace again last fall, read about 200 pages, and promptly got distracted by the world at large.  I decided that this week--my last week before classes start--was a good time to return to it and try to make some serious headway on it.

I'm now over halfway through the novel and I'm surprised by 2 things: 1) how much of the novel I really do remember, even though I read it nearly 30 years ago, and 2) what an "existentialist" text it is.

I put the word "existentialist" in quotation marks, because no, obviously, it isn't like reading Camus.  But at the same time, all of Tolstoy's major characters are struggling to figure out the meaning of their lives and a sense of their own purpose in this larger entity we call "life."

They struggle to do so against the backdrop of an aristocratic society marked by frivolity, scandal and excess: in effect, they live in a world and move in social circles in which their lives are not supposed to be "occupied" by any kind of meaningful work.  They are rich; they have leisure-time.  To want to "do" something with one's life is to suggest that you don't value the significance of your own place in the upper echelons of the Russian aristocracy.

Put quite simply,  War and Peace is about Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812.  At the center of the novel is the figure of Napoleon himself, a man with a decided sense of purpose (world domination) and one who, unlike the protagonists Prince Andrei Bolkonski and Pierre Bezukhov, never seems to lie awake at night wondering "why?" or "what's it all for?"

Tolstoy uses the vehicle of war to highlight and work through the dilemmas that haunt the characters in times of peace.  The two concepts--war and peace--are thus not opposites so much as intertwined variations on a theme.  Tolstoy does this kind of philosophical intermingling throughout, by constantly questioning the relationship of the particular to the universal, the relationship of the individual to the collective.

Tolstoy draws interesting--and sometimes rather strange--conclusions, but at times. his technique reminds me, in a roundabout way, of Clifford Geertz's concept of "thick description"and its applications in contemporary cultural theory.

Put simply, Geertz argues that "thin description" is a factual account.  So, using Geertz's own example, if a cultural anthropologist happens to be documenting my social interactions and witnessing me wink at you, that gesture might simply be documented as the action of contracting an eyelid.

This is true; this is the fact.  This is, in Geertz's argument, a "thin description."

A "thick description" recognizes that a wink is potentially more than the contraction of an eyelid.  What it "is" and what it "means" are more nuanced and complex.  To accurately describe my act of winking at you, an anthropologist has to understand the context in which it occurs: am I flirting with you?  have I just made a joke, and am I worried that you might not take it as a joke? am I making a joke at the expense of someone else and signaling to you that I consider you "in on it" with me? 

To attempt to account for the act and meaning of a fact ("she winked") in terms of its social contexts and nuances is to engage in "thick description."

Tolstoy's novel is fiction, obviously, but it's historical fiction, so what I find most interesting about it is the way in which he works on the line between historical fact and imaginative recreation.  He uses historical documentation to structure and shape his novel, but even as he does so, he comments on the fact that, "what happened" can never really be "known," because there's a decided difference between looking back retrospectively on the events of one's life and living them "in real time," as we would say today.

Thus, in Book Nine, Chapter 12, the character of Nicholas Rostov recognizes that "nothing happens in war at all as we can imagine or relate it" (717).  When you think about it, this is a really odd comment for a writer to include in a (1500-page) novel that is all about imagining and relating the story of a war.

Tolstoy's point, I think--and this is the idea that I'm finding most interesting in rereading the novel--is that the narration or artistic representation of an event both is and is not "the event" itself.  It is how we come to see an event, from the perspective of hindsight, on the basis of the things that, in retrospect, are deemed "important." 

In the example of Napoleon's invasion of Russia, Tolstoy remarks that all of the things that we now "see" as essential, determining factors in that war--"all these hints at what happened, both from the French side and the Russian, are advanced only because they fit in with the event" (762).

As Tolstoy's narrator observes,
The cause of the destruction of the French army in 1812 is clear to us now.  No one will deny that that cause was, on the one hand, its advance into the heart of Russia late in the season without any preparation for a winter campaign and, on the other, the character given to the war by the burning of Russian towns and the hatred of the foe this aroused among the Russian people.  But no one at the time foresaw (what now seems so evident) that this was the only way an army of eight hundred thousand men--the best in the world and led by the best general--could be destroyed in conflict with a raw army of half its numerical strength, and led by inexperienced commanders as the Russian army was. (761-762)
Tolstoy situates the tendency of history in an everyday context: "There are always so many conjectures as to the issue of any even taht however it may end there will always be people to say: 'I said then that it would be so, ' quite forgetting that amid their innumberable conjectures many were to quite the contrary effect" (762).

"I knew this would happen."  "I could have told you that."  "I saw this coming, but no one listened."  If you have any doubt of the universal truth of Tolstoy's claim here, just scroll through a  Facebook comment thread in the aftermath of a monumental event.

The function of the "peace" portions of Tolstoy's novel, then, seems to be to highlight the paradox of history: no one "knows" what will happen, because we're too busy living the actual happenings themselves.  But when we look back, we see a clear sense of meaning and purpose--an existential trajectory.

So it seems to me that, in representing his protagonists' existential questioning of the meaning of their lives, Tolstoy is suggesting that they are asking the wrong questions of themselves--they are looking for answers to questions that are, by definition, unanswerable in the moment in which they are being posed.

In effect, you can only "know" the meaning and purpose of your life, Tolstoy suggests, by... living it.  And the character and texture of the choices that you make as you do so will look very different in the moment in which you make them from the ways in which they will appear days, weeks or even years down the road.

The "truth" of life itself--and of a life in particular--lies in the intersections of past and present, individual and communal, war and peace.  This is what I'm reflecting on as I work my way through the second half of the novel.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."